Envy: Vice or Virtue?

Sunday, August 22, 2021
First Aired: 
Sunday, January 27, 2019

What Is It

Bertrand Russell said that envy was one of the most potent causes of unhappiness, and it's well known as one of the seven deadly sins. But is envy always a bad thing? Is it simply a petty emotion we should try to avoid, or could envy help us understand ourselves more? Is envy rooted in unhealthy comparison with others, or does it come from our own vision of excellence? Could envy even be used to improve ourselves? Josh and Ken consider whether to envy their guest, Sara Protasi from the University of Puget Sound, author of The Philosophy of Envy.

Listening Notes

Is envy necessarily a vice? On the one hand, it can be viewed as an impetus for self-improvement, but on the other hand, it tends to cultivate bitterness towards those we envy. Josh and Ken begin the show by considering these competing benefits. Ken explains that envy is nothing more than a recipe for a miserable life of comparing yourself with others. Josh pushes back, arguing that people always compare themselves to others and that, if anything, envy can serve as an impetus for self-improvement.

The hosts are joined by Sara Protasi, professor of philosophy at the University of Puget Sound. Sara weighs in by clarifying four types of envy: emulative, inert, aggressive and spiteful envy – each with their own respective qualities. Ken inquires about what distinguishes emulative envy from admiration, to which Sara responds that emulative envy tends to motivate us to change who we are, while admiration is a more passive act. Ken then concludes from this that emulative envy arises from two conditions – first we must envy others and then negatively regard ourselves in order to feel impelled to change. Sara synthesizes this discussion by describing the three-part relation of envy – of the envier, the person who is envied, and the object that the envier feels that they lack – and the distinct relations between these three components that can make envy good or bad.

In the last segment of the show, Josh, Ken, and Sara discuss strategies for cultivating the right kind of envy. Sara emphasizes that the envier should focus on the object they lack rather than the person they envy, since focusing on the object will help encourage the envier to pursue a path of self-improvement. Furthermore, Sara highlights the growth mindset as a powerful heuristic for regulating one’s own envy. People need to be open to discussing their own triumphs and failures, in a way that lowers the stakes when we feel envy.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 6:20): Holly J. McDede begins with the distinct portrayals of envy one can find in the media, such as the critical Seven Deadly Sins on the History Channel or the many self-help guides that use envy as positive motivation. She ultimately notes that, while we may not have control over when we feel envy, we ought to make sure it calls on us to improve ourselves rather than build indignation against others.
  • Sixty-Second Philosopher (Seek to 46:10): Ian Shoales discusses how envy can lead us to improve ourselves or seek the destruction of others. Ian specifically discusses this difference in the context of fashion and politics, where envy plays a variety of different roles in how agents interact.



Comments (9)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, January 9, 2019 -- 3:21 PM

I am not much into the 'seven

I am not much into the 'seven deadlies' anymore. Those are passe, for the purposes of modernity., inasmuch as almost no one believes in everlasting life or any other such nonsense. There was something in The Atlantic, which fired a neuron though. It had to do with AUTHENTICITY. I fired off a response, which I copied to your partner, Conner, which , hopefully, he might share with all of you. There are always at least three ways of looking at anything---usually more...

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, January 26, 2019 -- 10:43 AM


Allegedly, the following quote was attributed to W.C. Fields-" I went to Philadelphia once; it was closed."

I awoke this morning in the United States and learned that she was again open for business. Allegedly.

There are more than enough sins to go around and this has always been so. How anyone might entertain the notion of envy as a virtue is beyond the breadth of my mind's wrapping paper. Having said that, I can, 'sorta', recognize that, for my experience and the current state of this world, I live at a disadvantage. Nothing much I can do about this, other than getting along as best possible; treating those I know and respect with tolerance and courtesy; and remembering for my own edification something called the serenity prayer. Some reading this will know that little incantation. Others might Google it. Everyone else will go about their business, none the wiser... I bid them peace.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, June 22, 2021 -- 8:42 AM

I don't think I have ever

I don't think I have ever heard that string of words before: envy: vice or virtue? Never mind what I remarked in 2019. How did we come to this improbable question anyway? Someone must have framed it, somewhere or when. See, if there is the cancel culture we have been hearing of, and/or historical revisionism, which we are pretty certain exists, then there must be a connexion. That considered, is the question really about older cultural norms or an emergence of newer, hipper ones?
Many of us were taught, roughly, that envy is never virtuous. Nothing good comes of it and people have suffered because of it: even when they bring that suffering upon themselves. I'm not preaching to the choir or anyone else,merely stating how 'things probably are, not how they might possibly be'
So, if revision is afoot, for no better reason than we can go about that, or are bored, maybe it is time to examine deeper motives. If we have trepedation about such inquiry, where are we?. Sure, one might argue, for example, that envy can drive ambition and competition: good things for free capitalism. But, are those 'good' things good for anything else? That is a real question,IMHO.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, July 17, 2021 -- 6:38 AM

August promises to be hot,

August promises to be hot, envy notwithstanding. I have the potential for cucumbers and tomatoes to look forward to. What have you, other than musing over the virtue or vice of envy? Seems small to me. Years ago, a man named Graham Martin wrote a book asking whether anything mattered. Clearly, some things do. Yet, not so many as expected.. As I have noted before, Nagel and others have remarked on ' how things really are, not how they might possibly be'. And that is a salient point. Donald Davidson talked about propositional attitudes. Meaning, seems to me, is one of those. Perhaps the foundation of all. However, if meaning is universal, the rest are extensions---some legitimate, some, not so much. We construct our world, according to customs, traditions and other sociological functions.

Martin's book was anomaly. He had the temerity to write it, for which my hat is off to him. Did he have it all right? No. Of course not. But, neither did he have it all wrong...

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Tuesday, August 10, 2021 -- 9:19 PM

Emotion is an excellent

Emotion is an excellent example of how Philosophy can go wrong. In this case, John Dewey messed it up, and all philosophers, scientists, and human beings have had to deal with his sloppy thought ever since. Envy is a crucial example as almost all scientists today think of Envy as socially constructed while people are hard-pressed even to admit feeling it.

To be fair, Darwin started it. His third major work,' The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals,' reverts from his previous two pieces that frame nature as populations premised in variation. With 'Expressions', Darwin sent his fellow scientists off searching for essences of emotion using essentialism as a philosophical foundation. Many cats have been flayed to find that stimulating their brain stem is exciting, if not repeatably so. Why he reversed course with emotion is probably due to the ease with which essentialism can take hold in human brains with just a minimum of induction.

William James corrected Darwin philosophically, and John Dewey didn’t understand. William James classically said, “ ‘Fear’ of getting wet is not the same fear as fear of a bear.” Dewey took this and rethought it back to essentialist terms and named it after James and another psychologist Carl Lange to call it the James-Lange Theory of Emotion. I’m not sure William James ever had the opportunity to correct him on this.

What does this mean in terms of Envy? It means Envy comes from culture and human interaction. It’s felt “inside” and kept inside, but all the problems and evils it brings come from our interactions with others. Induction tells a baby their mother is called mama, and their father is called dada when parenting is wherever you find it. Many families aren’t so clear-cut, and neither is Envy.

As Protasi states, WEIRD societies fit her model. Still, even in those WEIRD societies, shades of construction make it hard to fit Envy into emulative, aggressive, inert, and spiteful. The German schadenfreude is one construction. Nick Riggles ‘awesome’ is another. These two stretch Protasi’s model and might even suggest other shades of Envy.

Overall, I find Sara Protasi very well thought out as practically modeling Envy for our culture. Her model is sound and predominately effective in thinking about our Envy and the rare times we see it in others. Understanding not to take this most constructed of all emotions personally is the greatest gift of this essay.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, August 24, 2021 -- 2:37 PM

Hmmm... I do not know Protasi

Hmmm... I do not know Protasi. I do know some of James and Dewey, both giants, as far as i can stand. James' foundations were, I think, theological. As with Descartes. And, Berkeley. Dewey, it seems, was more pragmatic. When he said beliefs were shady, his pragmatism shone brightly. Mixing philosophy with theology only works, to a point. They are siblings. But, siblings differ. Herein lies much of the difference, and, underlies a reason why religion and 'philosophy' are misplaced when lumped together as equal partners. It just is not so. Which came first? Religion or philosophy? Probably philosophy.. Was Aristotle Catholic? I do not think so.. Would it have mattered? Probably a lot. Inasmuch as free thinking would have been, uh, unthinkable...

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Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, September 6, 2021 -- 9:05 AM

Some final remarks on envy as

Some final remarks on envy as virtue, in several installments and wherewith, comparatives seem a relevant approach:
Faults, indiscretiona and shortcomings are not usually thought of as virtuous. Empathy, generousity and compassion may be so regarded. Jealousy and greed are aggressions. Aggression is often competitive, requiring winners and losers. Success and failure are necessary opposites.How one regards envy is a propositional matter. Insofar as no one wants to lose, envy settles upon losers, along with measures of anger and jealousy. Are sour grapes better than none? Not so much. Jealousy and envy are closely aligned. And lastly, jealousy is not virtuous.

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Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, September 7, 2021 -- 7:14 AM

My inferences? If jealousy is

My inferences? If jealousy is not virtuous, then neither is envy. One might argue this from abstraction and condone metaphysical methodology. But, I favor Nagel and others who lean to reality as 'how things probably are, not how they might possibly be'. My dear brother has asserted 'the trouble with philosophy is philosophers'. His cynicism took years of experience to properly cultivate. He has also claimed, rightly I think, that metaphysics consists of 'wild-ass guesses'.

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Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, September 15, 2021 -- 8:27 AM

Things viewed as bad for

Things viewed as bad for people in one way or another are classified as sinful. Those considered good are called virtuous. This an elementary way of stating matters. But such teachings are ancient. And, as a practical matter, universal. If one seeks to rewrite the rules, making once odious acts or practices appear virtuous (if only arguably so), for what philosophical purpose does this activity serve? Just for the sake of argument? That would seem trivial. To me, anyway.

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